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The Human Psychology behind Facebook’s Success

Facebook has become an addiction due to its ability to meet our basic needs

The past few years have been a time of incredible growth for social media in general, and Facebook in particular. The fact that the site has even topped Google as the most visited site in the U.S. suggests that Facebook has become an integral part of how people connect and communicate with the world around them.

Facebook allows registered users to create profiles, upload photos and video, send messages and – above all - keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues. However, Facebook’s ability to keep people connected is only part of the reason for its massive success. The truth is that Facebook allows us to connect not only with loved ones, but with our fundamental human needs. The same way that grocery stores are habituated into our routine to meet our need for physical sustenance, Facebook has become a daily destination for millions due to its ability to meet our need for psychological fulfillment.


Self-esteem is considered to be one of the determinants that shape our psychological well-being. Self-esteem is in large part based on our self-schema, a model that organizes information about ourselves and reflects what we think about, care about, and spend our time and energy on. If, for example, “being an athlete” is not an important aspect of your self-schema, then arriving last in the school’s running competition wouldn’t influence your self-esteem.However, if “being smart” is an important aspect of your self-schema, then scoring low on an exam would negatively influence your self-esteem.

Our Facebook profiles are micro-reflections of our self-schemata. In addition to our appearance, they include information about our hobbies, education level, number of friends, things we care about and so on. Thus, Facebook can unconsciously increase our self-esteem by providing us with the opportunity to reconstruct and control the way we present ourselves to the world. Furthermore, unlike public message boards, Facebook allows us to block any “trolls” whose insults and mean-spirited discourse threaten our self-assurance. 

Impression management

Impression management is the process through which people attempt to influence others’ perception of their image by regulating and controlling information during social interaction. It is considered a key building block in interpersonal communications, with the goal of enhancing desired traits.

Facebook, like most online interactions, allows the user to exercise a great deal of impression management. First of all, unlike face-to-face conversation, Facebook gives users as much time as they need to prepare a thoughtful or witty status update or wall post. Additionally, the influence of nonverbal behavior is entirely eliminated in the online arena.

As a result, we have developed a set of explicit and implicit signals to help us form impressions of other Facebook users. The explicit signals consist of clear-cut measurements like number of friends, perceived quality of friends and education level. The implicit signals are more subtle: frequent relationship status updates can imply instability; frequent profile photo changes and new posts can indicate an extroversion tendency, and frequent ‘like’-ing of others’ content can indicate ingratiation attempts. Furthermore, the decision not to share information like relationship status and gender of interest reveals even more about the user than the information shared!

A 2004 study by Samuel D. Gosling and Simine Vazire of the University of Texas found that Facebook profiles provide the observer with just as much information about the users’ personalities as their bedroom or office. Also, our initial interpretation of a user’s personality is accurate in most cases, and is revealed within the first few minutes of the interaction.

Thus, Facebook can influence our self-esteem by giving us the opportunity to control the way we present ourselves through the process of impression management – it can influence the way other people perceive us but most importantly, it can influence the way we perceive ourselves.

We put a lot of time and effort into this self-customization because, on a subconscious level, we are re-inventing a more positive version of ourselves. This is reflected in the composition of our carefully selected profile elements. We present our most attractive photos; list favorite movies, music and books that we feel will impress others; and send friend requests to not only our friends and family, but to the people we respect and want to be associated with.

Self-perception theory (SPT) asserts that people develop their attitudes by observing their own behavior and then making conclusions about the attitudes that must have been responsible for the behavior. Thus, the individual interprets his own overt behaviors rationally, in the same way he attempts to explain others’ behaviors. This helps to explain how one’s own Facebook profile can promote positive self-perception and contribute to our psychological well-being.

The need to belong

Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary (1995) argue that “the need to belong is a fundamental human need to form and maintain at least a minimum amount of lasting, positive, and (significant) interpersonal relationships. Satisfying this need requires (a) frequent, positive interactions with the same individuals, and (b) engaging in these interactions within a long-term framework….” In today’s world, social networks like Facebook fill this need.

Facebook gives its users a sense of belonging by co-opting familiar concepts that already hold strong cognitive associations. One such concept is ”friends.” This word is now used to describe a new form of relationship: two people linked through the Facebook platform. By introducing the user to a familiar concept that is already emotionally charged, Facebook ensures that our pre-existing associations with the word are automatically linked to the new concept. It actually takes advantage of everything that the concept of “friend” stands for and blurring the line between real and virtual relationships.

Another example for Facebook reliance on familiar concepts is the term “photo album”. A well-established concept that immediately associates with our closest social groups (mostly family and friends). This concept is emotionally charged and generates a sense of closeness and belongings.

Facebook Enables Our Personality Traits

Facebook provides its users with an immediate vent for our needs and obsessions. For example, Erica Dawson found that extroverts tend to update their profile photos, status, and information they reveal about themselves much more frequently than other users. Thus, Facebook allows them to act out their hidden desires without the fear of being perceived as arrogant or narcissistic. Imagine a person asking people to look at his photos at a social gathering, or telling everyone how many friends he has; he would immediately be perceived as breaking social codes. On Facebook, however, it is considered a legitimate activity.


For many people, Facebook has become an integral part of their everyday lives. In other words, it’s a habit: a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur unconsciously. The formation of every habit we adopt is triggered by a conscious or unconscious reward, which helps our brain decide if a particular action is worth remembering for the future. Thus, we may originally register on Facebook in order to be connected to our friends but, without realizing it, the site becomes a habit because we discover that it provides us with subconscious psychological rewards. Over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic as it is imprinted in our neural pathways. The result? 1.23 billion monthly active users.

More from Liraz Margalit Ph.D.
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